On Cruciform Lightsabers and the Two Deaths of Kylo Ren

The Hero with a Thousand Faces in Middle-earth, the Wizard World, and a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

I spend a lot of my life thinking about stories. I teach stories, I read stories, and I write about stories. Welcome to the life of an English major, kids, there’s hope for you yet.

One of the greatest gifts of Christmas (other than the birth of a Savior) is time. The first semester of school is over, I’ve graded the essays and written the comments (or at least put them aside for a week), the cakes are baked, the cards sent out, and — quite suddenly — there is time for stories. Along with, as Hollywood knows well, movie-going.

During the final weeks of the fall semester, I craft a unit with my 8th-grade students when, after reading Homer’s The Odyssey, we watch Disney/Pixar’s Coco and compare the heroic undertaking of a twelve-year-old boy and his guitar to an ancient Greek warrior. Joseph Campbell popularized the hypothesis of a Hero’s Journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and, since then, many story-readers have charted the journeys of characters from Dorothy in Oz to Bilbo Baggins to Katniss Everdeen to Luke Skywalker. Whether or not one buys into the idea of the “monomyth,” Joseph Campbell’s gift is an excellent vocabulary with which to discuss our stories and ourselves. I am consistently amazed each year by the few students who rise above and beyond the assignment, requesting permission to write about their own favorite book or movie, about the stories that have already begun to shape their maturing hearts.

One intriguing moment of the Hero’s Journey is the idea that each hero falls into an Abyss at a certain time on their path. The Abyss has several components, but there is almost always a moment of revelation — the character discovers a new piece of their identity or the world around them, often in an interaction with a father-figure, and this discovery dramatically alters how they feel about themselves and their role in their world. Crucially, there are always elements of death and elements of rebirth on either side of the Abyss.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, Harry is murdered by Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. Before his walk into the wildness of the woods, Harry learns through the memories of his enemy and protector, Severus Snape, that Harry is a Horcrux — he has carried a part of Voldemort’s soul inside himself ever since Voldemort’s attempt to murder Harry as a child. Harry’s role as the vessel of a tortured soul means that Harry himself has to die for Voldemort’s own defeat to be possible. When Harry awakes from his death, in a dream-like, purgatory-like train station, his father-mentor Dumbledore sadly confirms what Harry has learned. With Dumbledore’s revelation, Harry must decide which train to take — to go on into the realm beyond the station or to return to the Forbidden Forest, the deepest, darkest place on Hogwarts’s grounds, and face his destiny. When Harry does return, he is reborn into the arms of another mother, who keeps his secret to save her own son.

Another heroic example is that of an even more well-known (believe it or not) movie hero — a son of space and desert who walks among the stars. Luke Skywalker’s Abyss comes at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, the central film in the original trilogy. After Darth Vader severs Luke’s right hand, destroying his ability to fight, Vader reveals that he is, indeed, Luke’s father. Luke plummets through the bowels of the city, through depth and darkness, until he is dramatically rescued by his sister, Leia, and borne away for the final film of his journey. The trilogy is brought to a close in the next film, when Luke surrenders himself to Darth Vader, his father sacrifices himself to save Luke, and the Rebel fleet successfully destroys the Death Star, the great weapon of the Dark Side.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote an essay about how both George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien chose to end their epic sagas at the moment of eucatastrophe — Tolkien’s term for “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears … [a] peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth.” I argued that these two creators knew to end their story worlds at the moment of eucatastrophe because they understood the inherent hope in the Christian story: that no matter what wars may wage and what deaths we may die, the True Battle is already won. I wrote that essay after seeing The Force Awakens, the first movie in a new Star Wars trilogy of which George Lucas was not an active force. A new director brought war to Lucas’s galaxy.

A common thread of many reactions to the newest Star Wars trilogy is the deep sadness in the idea that Leia, Luke, and Han have continued to fight, for the rest of their lives, the war we all thought they had won. With the release of The Rise of Skywalker, the final installment in the newest trilogy, we now know that they also all lose their lives to the war we thought they’d won, as well as the life of Leia and Han’s son, Ben.

Ben Solo, or Kylo Ren, is a focal character of the new trilogy. An apprentice of Luke’s and son of Han and Leia, he is the next generation of the original trio, but when Kylo Ren first appears, he is an apprentice to the Dark Side, wreaking havoc in the galaxy with the help of the First Order. Kylo is erratic and emotional, but he is continually drawn to the newest Jedi heroine, Rey, in a back-and-forth, will-he-won’t-he return to the Light. Han, Leia, Luke, and Rey all attempt to reach Kylo, to draw him out of his misery and back to those who love him. Han, Luke, and Leia each also give their lives to save him — a trinity of grace which culminates in Kylo’s crucifixion.

As Kylo Ren, Ben has shaped a persona with which he believes he can carry on the legacy of his grandfather, Darth Vader. Vader’s helmet acts as a talisman or idol for Kylo as he attempts to become the new masked evil — a choice he returns to more than once. Even after destroying his mask in a fit of anger and frustration, Kylo reforges the mask and reassumes his obscured identity in The Rise of Skywalker. Call it a plothole, if you’d like. I call it human — how many of us can say we’ve never returned to our old masks, even after we’ve destroyed them in outbursts of shame? As Kylo rampages across the galaxy, he seeks Rey, believing that they can defeat Palpatine and rule the galaxy together. He catches up to her in the place where Darth Vader was finally defeated: the wreckage of the Death Star.

Kylo Ren’s Abyss takes place within the star of Death. A planet-killer, destroyed a generation before and left to the tempests and seas of Endor, the Death Star is the end — the end of Darth Vader and the end of Kylo Ren. Rey and Kylo’s duel is an epic, grand-scale, fervent battle, with the waves of destruction and the dying pieces of spaceship collapsing around them. The cinematography brings to mind Camille Paglia’s essay on Anakin and Obi-Wan’s Mustafar duel, except that this is a battle of water, not of fire. A baptism, not a banishment.

When The Rise of Skywalker opens, the two beacons of Kylo’s anger are extinguished. He has killed Han, his father, in the climactic battle of The Force Awakens, and all of the torrents of disappointment and abandonment that he feels about Han no longer have a focal point. In the climax of The Last Jedi, Luke sacrifices himself so that the final group of Rebels can escape Kylo’s rampage, and Kylo — striking at Luke’s force projection with all of the anger of a distraught and abandoned child — suddenly finds himself slashing at empty air. The one who betrayed him, the one who was supposed to mentor him, to care for him, to teach him, is gone. With the loss of both father-figures, Kylo is finally on his own amongst the stars and battles of the galaxy. We see him take up his recapitulation of Vader’s mask in the opening of The Rise of Skywalker, and we realize that he finally believes he is free — now that Han, Luke, and even Snoke, are no more. Freedom, however, is elusive, and Kylo has traded his soul to the Dark Side for a freedom that he has fought, clawed, and scraped to achieve himself. There is no real freedom in such a dark and lonely tower.

As Rey and Kylo viciously fight amongst the leaping waves and tossing seas, their lightsabers crackling in the storm’s sprays, Leia sacrifices the last of her strength to reach her son in the crucial moment of the battle. Kylo hesitates, hearing his mother’s dying call, and Rey seizes her chance to strike with Kylo’s own weapon — a self-forged lightsaber in the shape of a cross. She pierces his side, and he falls to his knees. He is dying.

There is a moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Harry witnesses the death of Severus Snape, pierced by the fangs of the serpent. Snape has been the antihero of the Harry Potter saga, continually threatening Harry and his friends, sweeping the halls of Hogwarts in long, black robes and shoulder-length dark hair. It’s not difficult to imagine that J.J. Abrams had an allusion in mind when he styled Kylo’s character. Both Snape and Kylo use their abilities to break into the minds of their opponents, and both Snape and Kylo find the call to the light through love’s redemption. Snape’s motives are, in fact, the other half of Harry’s Abyss revelation — Harry has grown up surrounded by the protection of a man who never stopped loving Harry’s mother, long after her death.

Kylo’s love for his mother is important foreshadowing in The Last Jedi. With his finger on the trigger, he has the opportunity to blow her spaceship’s command bridge out of the sky, and he cannot take the shot. Whatever anger and resentment that Kylo feels towards Han and Luke, Leia stands for something else. Although she begins her Jedi training under Luke, Rey crucially finishes her training with Leia as her master in The Rise of Skywalker. It is Leia’s ability to love and to forgive that strikes Kylo’s heart with his own cross and, moments later, allows Rey to place her hand over Kylo’s wound and save his soul.

When Rey saves his life on the wreckage of the Death Star, she finally kills Kylo Ren. The death that awaits Kylo in his Abyss destroys his self-justification, his pride, and the Dark Side’s hold upon his soul. As Rey flies away in his ship, Ben Solo stands up in Kylo Ren’s place. He calls a memory of Han back to his mind, their conversation echoing the words that father and son said to each other before Han’s death, but with a new emphasis. Ben can rewrite his past, inserting grace and the unspoken words of “I love you” into his final conversation with his father, because that past self is dead and buried, washed clean in the titanic waves of Endor. Ben is born again, a new son and a new warrior — a warrior of the light.

During the introduction of Kylo Ren in his first film, we watch as he speaks to Darth Vader’s helmet. His words beg Darth Vader, his grandfather, to show him the power of the darkness but also to “forgive” him because he feels the pull of the light. Kylo Ren vows to finish what Darth Vader started, and on the same Death Star in which Darth Vader met his destiny, Kylo Ren meets his — death and rebirth as the sacrifice. When Luke and Darth Vader fight for the final time, Luke cuts off Darth Vader’s hand as Vader had cut off his. The loss of Vader’s fighting arm, the ability to wield the deadly lightsaber, finally kills the self-justifying warrior power that has kept Darth Vader battling against the light. His final act as a father is to sacrifice his life for Luke’s, saving his son and his soul.

Kylo Ren’s Transformation — the next step in the Hero’s Journey following the Abyss — is complete when he rises, reborn, from the Death Star as Ben Solo. As he flings his self-created lightsaber into the whirling waters, Ben realizes that he must find Rey. She is in the same danger that he has faced, as she fights her rising anger against Emperor Palpatine and the pathway of her own rage to the Dark Side. Once a hero has passed through the Transformation, there is one final step before his Return — the Atonement. Atonement occurs when the hero becomes “at-one” with his new self. Usually this Atonement happens through a reckoning, when the hero must choose to accept and act as his transformed self. And it is in this final stage that Ben Solo finishes what Darth Vader started.

Darth Vader’s true legacy is that of an antihero turned sacrificial victim. When he dies to save his only son, he is redeemed — “bought back,” at the price of his death, to the side of the light. When Ben Solo rushes to Rey’s side, he stands beside her in an attempt to defeat Palpatine, but even their dyad in the Force is not strong enough. Ben is thrown backwards into a pit, all of the imagery of the Abyss swallowing him once again, and Rey is left to defeat Palpatine on her own. The strength of the act kills her, and all the lights of the galaxy seem extinguished. The hard, cold truth of the dark planet of the Sith is that the defeat of the enemy requires a blood sacrifice.

George Lucas once said in an interview that he created Star Wars to test a theory about whether mythological motifs were still true in our world today. When asked whether the film was “a lot about good and evil and a lot about heroes,” he responded:

It’s about good and evil, but heroes … what makes a hero? What’s friendship? What’s the idea of sacrificing yourself for something larger? They’re all really basic things, and so you say, well, you don’t have to make a movie about that, it’s very obvious. But it’s actually not. It’s not that obvious to a lot of people unless you have somebody tell you every generation that this is what our country believes in. That this is what we believe in.

Much of Lucas’s opus came out of time spent with his mentor — Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s influence is written in the stars of Lucas’s galaxy, and the mantle that J.J. Abrams inherited from George Lucas has not changed much in the almost-fifty years since the release of the very first Star Wars film. Half a century is, indeed, a new generation, and the films within Abrams and Johnson’s trilogy fulfill Lucas’s calling, a calling that Lucas ties back to Homer and the bards of old. Why do we tell ourselves stories? To teach the next generation what we believe, he says. And Lucas believes in good and evil and sacrifices.

As the camera moves away from Rey’s lifeless body and the empty lightsaber hilts beside her, a hand reaches up from the abyss. Ben has survived Palpatine’s attempt to kill him, and he finds himself, once again, racing towards Rey to save her. He takes her body in his arms and, in the same gesture she used to heal his wound, places his hand against her side. Ben pours his life force into Rey, and as the audience watches — in my theater, I heard a young boy turn to his mom and ask, “she’s really dead?” in such a plaintive tone — Rey’s hand grabs Ben’s as he brings her back to life. They are given the gift of a final moment in time — just the two of them — before Ben falls to the ground at Rey’s side and truly dies.

The colors around Ben shift to blue, echoing the waters of baptism and washing free the red flames of anger that have surrounded Kylo.

Ben’s Atonement, the moment he chooses to accept his Transformation to a warrior of the light and the true legacy of his grandfather, means that he returns to the Force and the stardust and the family from which he came. There is an entire Internet community that mourns the loss of Ben Solo: how unfair it is that he has to die, how there seems to be no point in redemption if it just means death, how audiences should petition Abrams to re-write the ending, and the list goes on. Go check #BringBenSoloBack on Twitter, if you want to fall down a rabbit hole. The reality is that the audience has forgotten what George Lucas taught us a generation ago. A sacrifice is always necessary. It just so happens that this go round, a hero is the sacrifice.

Kylo Ren’s cinematic and literary ancestors, Darth Vader and Severus Snape, are classic examples of the antihero who becomes a hero in the moment of his self-sacrifice. It is only with their deaths that audiences and the characters around them realize the good and the light that existed within the hearts of the villains. Their deaths are heartbreaking, yes, but all seems good and right and true that they can be redeemed in their final moments. Abrams — in a way — has done something more daring. Abrams makes Ben Solo a hero before his moment of sacrifice, and all of the trilogy’s build-up of will-he-won’t-he turn to the light means that the audience feels a sense of justice and prophetic fulfillment in Ben Solo’s rise as a Skywalker from the abyss of the Death Star. The waters of Endor have closed around Kylo’s weapon and washed Ben clean of his past. All of which makes it all the more crushing, and seemingly senseless, for the risen hero to die. What kind of forsaken galaxy requires that kind of sacrifice?

As I left the theater and the wars of the galaxy behind, I thought of the way that Ben’s death and sacrifice paved the way for Rey’s resurrection in the same way that Han, Luke, and Leia’s deaths (and Darth Vader’s, in the end) paved the way for Ben’s resurrection. The cost of life is blood in the worlds beyond the stars. And yes, the lightsabers that Rey buries may rise again, and yes, the ghosts of Luke and Leia and all of the Jedi of the light may live in future generations, but those lightsabers are weapons of war, and war always has its costs. The cycle of sacrifice goes on.

Joseph Campbell structured the Hero’s Journey as a circle to illustrate that the journey never truly ends. In our ends are only our new beginnings. Life flows from adventure to adventure, always seeking the next horizon. But the problem with circles, especially circles of sacrifice and war, is that they are unbroken. A circle is fixed, ever flowing into its ending and its beginning, death and life, death and life. The real question that Ben’s sacrifice asks is whether there can ever be life without death. G. K. Chesterton has answered that question better than I ever could:

The circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.

We tell ourselves stories to entertain, to share wisdom, to draw out empathy, and because we are driven, as human beings, by a primal need to create narratives of our lives and our world. We are people of the Word, born of the Word, drawn to the Word, and saved by the Word. And we have a choice, each generation, of what stories we will tell. Of the narratives we will share with our children, of the books we will teach, and of the stories we may write. George Lucas is right that good and evil and friendship and sacrifice should be obvious. But he’s also right that they’re not. So, what stories will we choose to share? What stories will we pass on to those who come after us? There’s an old story of a hero turned sacrifice whose death broke the circle of blood and debts. A story that rewrote the world. No matter what battles we spend the rest of our lives fighting, no matter how many masks we wear and how many times the Dark Side pulls on our hearts, the battle of the cross is done. Thank God for sacrifices. Thank God for stories. And thank God for the Word.

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4 responses to “On Cruciform Lightsabers and the Two Deaths of Kylo Ren”

  1. David Zahl says:

    One McDavid to rule them all!!! What a gift you have given us all with this essay, Derrill. Thank you thank you thank you.

    It makes me completely reevaluate my response to the film, which was positive but by no means glowing, pun intended. And that quote from Chesterton! PTL.

  2. Mary Ann Hill says:

    Thank you! I’ve been pondering the question of “did Ben Solo have to die?” for three weeks. I think having to pack so much into 2.25 hours and all of the tight editing made it difficult for casual viewers to follow these themes. 15 minutes wasn’t long enough for the arc of Ben’s redemption. And the kiss muddied the waters (imho). But there’s a lot more depth to the film than is immediately apparent. I’d like to see a director’s cut, but I’m not holding my breath. Thanks for this!

  3. Meyriel Edge says:

    Thank you so much Derrill! I feel enlightened but sad that I’ve missed so much. It’s the connections and comparisons that make the difference. Wow! I’d love to be in your class, how much I would learn but how much you would give me to THINK about. This will keep me going for a long time ????.

  4. Bryant Trinh says:

    “Darth Vader’s true legacy is that of an antihero turned sacrificial victim.”

    That part sent shivers down my spine. I can not believe that fact flew right over my head throughout the entirety of the new trilogy!

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